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At 100, the Colored Musicians Club tells Buffalo's history

The CMC Jazzfest is a great opportunity to visit the historic Colored Musicians Club, a place that, though founded in 1917, remains one of our town's better-kept secrets. Even Walter Kemp, the CMC's artist director, didn't learn about the club until after he came home from college.

"I was a musician who was really interested in music and jazz, and went away to school, and didn't realize that we had one of the great arts gyms right in my own city," Kemp said.

"You saw different musicians, different ages. At that time, Norman Jackson still was alive. Boyd Lee, I knew him as a child, never knew he was a pianist. He was down there. So those type of people piqued my interest.

And the more I learned, about Wade Legge, the other folks in Buffalo, and Miles, and Coltrane, and Shep, Elvin Shepherd -- Shep was from Buffalo," Kemp pointed out, referring to saxophonist Elvin Shepherd. "So those type of people piqued my interest."

For anyone grounded in academia, the Colored Musicians Club has a special allure. It harks back to the days before music was almost invariably taught in institutions.

"It gives you the old-school feeling, when you had to go through a club to learn how to play," Kemp said. "A lot of the artists I bring in are bringing that tradition with them. We have artists from Sunnyside, Blue Note. Yes, they're professors, and had to go through school because of the system that was created. But they all cut their teeth on the clubs and the scenes in bars."

Breaking barriers

The Colored Musicians Club came into being for practical reasons, dating from the days when black and white musicians had separate unions.

"If there hadn't been a union, there wouldn't be a club," explained George K. Arthur, a retired president of the Buffalo Common Council  and longtime Buffalo jazz fan.

"They organized the union so they could play, because they couldn't get admission into the white union. That was in 1917. In 1918 they formed the club. That way, they could have the private affairs that they wanted to do that were separate from the union. In 1935, they incorporated the club and bought the building where they are on Broadway."

Buffalo's barrier-breaking Colored Musicians Club turns 100

The segregated unions continued until 1969.

"Then, the national federation made them merge," Arthur said. "And what happened was, the white union thought the black union owned the buildings, but what the leadership did was, they separated the two, and put all the assets into the name of the club. So when they merged, the white union couldn't get the building. The club has survived since then."

Colored Musicians Club President George Scott, left, and board member George Arthur are pictured in the club's museum on its first floor. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

And the CMC has made its mark in the musical world.

"Buffalo had a lot of great musicians," Arthur said. "Bands who came through here, if they needed extras, they would go to the union. 'Spider' Martin played here, and Elvin Shepherd.

"And there were the guys who were nuts and bolts, treasurers, secretaries and others who couldn't get memberships. Everybody couldn't get membership," he pointed out. "In order to belong to the Colored Musicians Union you had to have the ability not only to play but to read and write music. You had a lot of people who played music who couldn't read. They applied and tried , but couldn't get in, because they couldn't pass tests."

The late, great legends of the Colored Musicians Club

The club's high standards built its reputation.

"The club was the place where they were no racial barriers," Arthur said. "Everyone came -- black, white, brown, whatever, to play music. People would come there to the club and jam with everybody. It was a melting pot.

"All you heard was the music. I still tell people, people could come up there -- they had all kinds of troubles, difficulties, maybe they were about to be foreclosed on -- they'd come to the club, listen to the music, and forget all their troubles. The music made them happy."

It still does.

Band members and fans gather during a break in the Colored Musicians Club. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Heart of the community

As the club's current president, George Scott, has put it: "It's not only black history, it's Buffalo history." Music fans owe it to themselves to pay this place a visit.

If you're new to the club, Kemp suggests you take your time. Listen, look, and absorb the unique ambiance.

"It's the real music, and the heart of the music, that you'll hear when you come in," he said. "You get the warmth of the people in the community. You notice that everyone's there, diversity, all the way around. You get a little mix between the old and the young. With the old, there is new."

He proudly points out the stylish brews the club is now carrying: Flying Bison's Rusty Chain, Brooklyn Ale, Founders IPA. The club also has state-of-the-art recording equipment.

But it still has the same soul. And it's still old school.

Kemp said, "We've moved into the future without forgetting where we came from."

CMC Jazzfest: 150 performers honor 100 years of Colored Musicians Club




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